Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Global warming affected by ‘human imprint’ says veteran meteorologist

Richard Whitaker photo taken with the dean, master and residents of Warrane

One of Australia’s most experienced meteorologists, Mr Richard Whitaker, told Warrane residents he believes global warming may be partly due to “human activities”, but said the issues was is still being debated by experts.

Speaking to Warrane residents at the inaugural dinner for second semester on Wednesday 31 July 2013, Mr Whitaker said that temperatures had varied enormously in the history of the earth and there were several factors involved.

They included “eccentricities” in the earth’s orbit, the impact of extraterrestrial bodies like large asteroids and comets, variation in the energy emitted by the sun. But in more recent times there had been “the worries about the chemical composition of the atmosphere increasing greenhouse gasses”. His personal view was that the “human footprint” was in fact having a significant impact – something reflected by the fact that there were many weather records broken in eastern Australia over the preceding month.

However, he believed that the issue would continue to be debated.

During a wide-ranging talk and question-and-answer session, Mr Whitaker gave residents a detailed overview of the history of weather forecasting.

His own career in meteorology has been extensive, stretching back to 1971 when he began work at the Australia Bureau of Meteorology. A former senior forecaster and NSW Manager of the Bureau’s commercial arm, he launched his own meteorological consultancy business in 2002 and over the years has written books and appeared regularly on television and radio.

In his talk, titled “From Gods to Gigabytes”, Mr Whitaker detailed the astonishing progress of weather forecasting over the past century.

Looking back at human history, he pointed out that many primitive cultures had put down weather patterns to the activity of gods like the Egyptian Sun God, Ra, the Greek God, Zeus and the Norse God of thunder, lightning and storms, Thor.

In addition to such mythologies, some cultures actually learned to identify certain weather patterns from natural phenomena such as the growth patterns of plants.

However the modern science of meteorology did not start to make real progress until after World War II when computers were developed that were powerful enough to carry out the massive amount of calculations that were necessary.

The accuracy of weather forecasting improved with the spread of radar in the 1960s and the launch of the first meteorological satellites. The science also leaped ahead after President John Kennedy began World Weather Watch in 1961.

Mr Whitaker said that meteorological bureaus now receive measurements from a wide range of sources including ocean buoys, weather balloons, radar, meteorological satellites and from commercial aircraft.

Thanks to that data, weather forecasting had been getting increasingly accurate. While in 1980 it was only possible to forecast accurately a single day ahead, there had been a steady decline in errors in forecasting and it was now possible to predict what the weather would be up to a week ahead of time. In the future, Mr Whitaker said, it should be possible to increase the forecasting period to two weeks with “reasonable accuracy”.

“At the present we can’t differentiate between areas like Randwick and St Ives,” he said, “but that should also be possible in the future.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]